God Ethel, you’re shameless!” exclaimed Julia as she sat on the bed and slipped her long elegant legs into a pair of silk stockings. Grinning, I picked up a magazine on the night stand. Julia always feigned shock but I knew she loved hearing the bits of gossip I dripped into her lap. I casually flipped through the glossy pages as she finished getting dressed.
“I’m not doing any harm,” I replied, looking up to watch her step into a flouncy emerald green dress. “Besides, I only tell you. It’s not like I go around broadcasting people’s dirty little secrets.” I did, however, derive immense pleasure from rumors and prattle and repeating those tidbits to Julia over a cup of tea or morning toast.
Julia spun around. “Well, I’m not going to listen anymore!” She waved a slender finger in admonition.” I’m only enabling your bad behavior!”
I rolled my eyes. “Do you want to hear what Mrs. Anderson told her sister or not?”
Julia smoothed out the folds in her gown. “Fasten me up,” she instructed, turning her milky white back in my direction. I tossed aside the magazine and stood up behind her, carefully pushing each pearly button into its’ corresponding slot. Julia remained silent as I worked my way from bottom to top. She smelled like rosewater and ivory soap. I leaned in by the back of her neck.
“She lied,” I whispered into the curl tucked sweetly behind Julia’s ear. “Mrs. Anderson told her sister that she lied to Father Gerald and the police about the missing money from the church collection. It was never stolen.”
I heard Julia’s little gasp and knew I had her attention. “There was no robbery!” I continued. “She took it herself!”
“No!” exclaimed Julia, keeping her face pointed straight ahead while I fastened her dress. “Why?”
“She gambles! Her husband doesn’t know. Mrs. Anderson lost a fortune at the races and she’s asked her sister for a loan.”
“How awful!” Julia sounded genuinely distressed. “I despise gambling. My father gambled…”
“He did?” I never knew Mr. Cummings. He had passed away from a heart attack before Julia and I became roommates.
“Yes. He lost money almost every week.” She held out a perfectly manicured hand and inspected her cuticles. “Sometimes men came to the house looking for him. It was dreadful!” I felt a little shiver wriggle down her spine.
Now I understood Mrs. Cummings’ stern, astringent manners. Her hard eyes inspected me when we first met, looking for any default or impropriety. Living with a feckless and unreliable husband like Allen Cummings must have hardened her character.
“Mother inherited a small fortune when Uncle Edward died. She never said a word to Father or else he would have gambled it away.”
I buttoned the last button and helped Julia on with her shawl.“Gorgeous!” I exclaimed when she whirled around. Harry Belmont was taking her swing dancing at the Fairmount Hotel.
“You’ll come with us next time?” she asked.
“Three’s a crowd,” I laughed. “Besides, I don’t want to be in the way in case Harry proposes!”
A notion of guilt nudged at my bosom. Julia didn’t know, but Harry Belmont gambled too. Well, just card games…nothing serious. After all, it could be worse. There could be other women.
I saw him once outside of Peterson’s Tavern. It was late. The street lamps were on and I was walking home from my shift at The Bell Telephone Company. As I rounded the corner of Bigsby Street, a group of men threw Harry to the ground. He landed in a snowbank, a flurry of playing cards tossed at his head.
One of the men bent down, grabbing Harry by the collar. “Two days Belmont,” he growled. I stayed hidden in the shadows. After a few kicks to the gut, the angry posse went back inside. Harry righted himself and shuffled off down the icy sidewalk. Keeping secrets was not my strongest virtue, but I never told Julia. Now, I wondered…maybe I should have?
Surely all men had a few secrets. It was just a little poker game between friends. Besides, Harry was crazy about Julia. He would never do anything to hurt her. And, she loved him…so much, that she turned down Richard Hayes when he asked her to marry him.
“Listen to me Ethel,” Julia broke my thoughts, a serious look furrowing her perfect ivory complexion. “Stop eavesdropping on people’s conversations! Nothing good will come of it.” She collected her gloves from the dresser drawer and snapped shut her purse. “Besides, you’re already on probation.”
Rejecting her warning, I carelessly waved my hand. “Oh, that’s just for being late! I haven’t actually been caught listening on the line.” Working as a “Hello Girl” for The Bell Telephone Company had only fueled my inquisitive nature. Secrets, slander, scandal…it was all at my fingertips with the push of a little plug into a little jack.
Julia stood there looking at me in disbelief. “You’re impossible.”
“I know,” I said, giving her a mischievous wink. The horn of Harry’s Ford Silver Sapphire honked in the street below. Julia blew me a kiss and hurried out the door.
The next morning, I woke up early and dressed for work. Black dress, black shoes…the uniform of a switchboard operator was better suited for funerals. Julia’s dancing dress was flung over the back of a chair and her blankets softly rose and fell in the rhythm of untroubled sleep. Slipping out into the brisk morning I walked and wondered… when I would meet a man like Harry Belmont and wear green dresses and whirl about on dance floors while the clocked ticked past midnight?
It was hard to be jealous of Julia. She was kind and beautiful and innocent in a rather charming, unaffected way. But, to be honest, I did covet her life, her looks and her luck. In fact, I rather coveted Harry Belmont.
He caught me once, under some mistletoe, at a party on New Year’s Eve.
“Hello, Girl!” Harry used the colloquial tag the girls had acquired at The Bell Telephone Company. He had latched on to the little epithet, using it as an endearing nickname whenever we met. I smiled up at him as people jostled by us. His demeanor was jovial, yet intense.
“She’s happy, isn’t she?” he asked, grabbing me roughly by the shoulders. Somewhere in the background, a Tombstone Radio diffused Ella Fitzgerald’s sultry notes into the night. Slightly stunned and considerably thrilled by his touch, I stared into his searching brown eyes. “Ethel? I mean with me. Julia’s happy being with me, isn’t she?”
Maybe it was the nostalgia of holiday celebrations or an excess of alcohol, but that night Harry’s ardent nature had been heated to a fever. “Yes, Harry. Yes, of course. She’s mad about you!”
“Thank God!” He put a hand on the wall behind my head and leaned in closer. He smelled like whiskey and aftershave. My knees went liquid. “I just want her to be happy. That’s all I want, is for Julia to be happy.”
“She’s happy Harry,” I said. “She’s really, really happy.”
He flashed a roguish smile and kissed my cheek. “You’re a good friend Ethel,” he said. My heart jumped rope as I watched him saunter off into the crowd.
It wouldn’t be long now before wedding bells and babies; unless Mrs. Cummings had anything to do with it. Julia’s mother had tried everything in her power to persuade Julia to marry Richard. She felt he was more dependable, more established, more permanent and unshakable.
Richard Hayes was a solicitor for Pembroke and Son’s. He had money, a house, smart clothes and a quiet but acutely assertive manner. In fact, Richard thought he could get anything he wanted and was astounded when Julia turned him down. But this dismissal only served to bolster Richard’s interminable behavior; he became more persistent and the flowers and phone calls and letters kept coming. He continued to make his case, so to speak, but it was useless. Julia’s affections were for Harry Belmont alone.
Harry Belmont was everything Richard Hayes was not; he was animated where Richard was dull, he was boisterous where Richard was solemn and he was impulsive where Richard was steady. Usually covered in grease and oil, Harry worked as a mechanic at the Bay Street Garage. He labored hard, he laughed hard and he loved hard. Easily impassioned when his interest was roused, Julia had stirred the oceans of Harry’s heart, and swept him away in a tide of romance.
Mr. Pringle glowered at me when I arrived for my shift and I hurried down the long floor of switchboard operators to my station. A glance, a gaze or even a polite hello to any of the other girls was considered a major offense. Rules were strict…so you had to be clever if you wanted to bend them.
Settling into my chair, I secured my headset and readied myself for the long hours ahead. Saturday mornings were busy and the panel lit up like a swarm of fireflies. At 1:00pm, I took a short lunch break and then continued working into the afternoon. There was no chance to bend an ear and snag some juicy gossip. The board buzzed relentlessly and Mr. Pringle walked the floor, keeping us under close surveillance.
At 4:00pm, the bustle slackened and Mr. Pringle migrated to his desk at the far end of the room. I took the opportunity to “drop in” on a few connections, but there was nothing worth listening to; only Alice Peters complaining to Sally May Smith that the butcher had delivered spoiled meat and she was going to “march right down there tomorrow morning and push that rancid lamb shank right under his nose.” I wouldn’t have any worthwhile tidbits (like affairs or deceit or financial ruin) to exchange with Julia over breakfast.
I was preparing to go home when Penelope Green, the girl seated to my right, suddenly pulled off her headset and ran to the bathroom to vomit. (Pregnant? That would be a saucy scandal! I would suss out further details later.)
Mr. Pringle asked me to cover Penelope’s shift and work until 9:00pm. Already in hot water and on probation, I agreed without hesitation.
My back hurt and my stomach growled but at least I would earn some extra money and potentially land myself back in Mr. Pringle’s good graces. The calls continued to dwindle and the night was quiet. At 8:30pm a caller rang in and I recognized their voice.
“Hello!” I chimed. Number please.”
“Yes, Operator. MAR9655624.”
It was Julia’s mother, Mrs. Cummings! And I was almost certain that was Harry Belmont’s phone number. Julia had it written on a slip of paper by our telephone in the hall.
“Thank you. One moment.” I pushed the plug into the jack and glanced quickly over my shoulder. Mr. Pringle was at the other end of the floor, helping Nancy Adams with a difficult caller. I stayed on the connection and listened…
“Well, Harry…glad to find you in.” The sarcastic, corrosive words burned in my ear.
“What do you want?” Harry’s usually upbeat tone sounded tense and on edge.
“I won’t ask you again. Tonight is my last offer.”
“Oh, come now. Tell me… and I’ll settle your vile debts. How much?” It seemed to me, this wasn’t a friendly proposal.
Harry took a ragged breath. There was silence on the line. Around me, I could hear the girls attending incoming calls. “Hello! - Number please! - Thank you! - One moment!” There was the gentle sound of patch cords being plugged into sockets. I held my breath and waited for Harry to answer.
I nearly fell out of my chair. Ten thousand dollars?! I thought he simply drank a few beers and played bridge with the boys. How did Julia not know about this?
Mrs. Cummings sniffed. “Well, you certainly have dug yourself into a nasty little hole.”
“I didn’t mean to…”
Mrs. Cumming’s cut him off. “I don’t care! I really do not care Harry Belmont. Men like you never mean to do anything. You are all aimless, irresponsible, lying fools!” Her voice had risen to shrill heights. My stomach churned as I sat glued to my chair.
“I wish you would reconsider the terms,” Harry appealed.
Mrs. Cummings emitted a caustic laugh. “You go near my Julia again and the only term you will face is a prison sentence. Those loan sharks won’t wait much longer.”
Harry let out a little sob. “I love her,” he stammered.
“Then take the money and go. A life with you will be no life.” A hint of sadness coated the acerbic remark. “She could never be happy with you.”
I waited for Harry’s answer but I already knew what it would be. A camera flash of mistletoe and whiskey and Harry’s urgent face played out a picture show memory in my mind.
The Bell Telephone Company delivered the sound of Harry’s crushing defeat into my ear. “Where should I meet you?” he asked. Silent tears dripped down my face.
Suddenly, a hand clamped down on my shoulder. Jerking to attention, I looked up to see Mr. Pringle’s beady eyes glaring at me through tiny round spectacles. He held out his hand and I gave him my headset.
“You’re fired!” he said and stormed off down the hallway.
“I know,” I replied, wiping my cheeks and watching him go.
Hair pins were strewn across the kitchen table. The apartment smelled like lavender shampoo and scented pomade. Julia stood in her pink satin bathrobe, clipping the last strands of freshly washed hair into tight little curls. Tomorrow she would look like a Hollywood star.
I flopped down in a chair and pulled off my shoes.
“I hate to say I told you so,” began Julia in a light-hearted, sing-song reprove.
“I know, I know. Go ahead say it.” I put my elbows on the table and dropped my head into my hands.
“Of course I won’t darling!” She fluttered down next to me and placed an arm around my shoulders. “Poor you,” she murmured. “I really am very sorry.” Julia’s eyes were blue lagoons of tenderness.
“You were right,” I sighed. “I should have minded my own business.”
“Well, I hope it was worth it?” She nudged me in the side. “So, what juicy tidbit did you uncover anyway?” I turned away, sick to my stomach.
“I thought you didn’t want to hear any more of my indecent gossip?”
“Oh, well…I’ve had an awful day. Mother and I went to lunch and she was in a ghastly mood; going on about how I bungled things with Richard Hayes. And Harry, that scamp! He’s not returning my calls.” Julia looked movie star tragic sitting there in her robe, graceful and sad.
“Indulge me,” she begged. “I need something to cheer me up.”
It had been a long day. My head ached, but mostly my heart ached knowing what I had to do.
Julia stood and went to the stove. “I’ll make you a nice cup of tea,” she cooed, pulling cups and spoons from the cupboard. I got up from my chair and went to the stove. My hand stopped hers before she could take hold of the kettle. I felt like a malevolent gardener who was about to crush a resplendent rose.
“No,” I said. “I think maybe I should make you one.”